The Burlesque Brouhaha
I’ve seen some shows I really didn’t enjoy over the past few days, but I’m not going to write about them. As far as I’m concerned, ostracism from all discourse is sufficient punishment for the crime of failure to entertain, but of course I’m not a professional critic or reviewer, and sometimes I’m thankful for that fact.
Yesterday I read with amusement Sally Stott’s utterly scathing Scotsman review of the Edinburgh burlesque scene. She reviews six shows in one mighty article, giving two of them three stars (equivalent to summary dismissal) and three of them two stars (equivalent to summary dismissal coupled with a poke in the eye), and the one she gives four stars to is credited with this distinction: “Out of all the burlesque acts I've seen, the ones that didn't involve women stripping were the best.” So is Sally just a prude? Is this like tut-tutting at women who wear revealing clothes on the street? Is she unfairly venting her spleen on Edinburgh’s fun-loving dancing girls, perhaps out of lingering frustration at the pay-gap between male and female Scotsman critics? I doubt it.
I haven’t seen any of the shows she reviewed, so I can’t say whether I agree with her critique or not, but I have met Sally a few times over the years and have been closely reading her Scotsman reviews for three consecutive Fringes now and I can say – in my esteem – that she usually has excellent judgment. That’s why I think her article is so brave. She must have known that she was about to draw the ire not only of a performer or two, but of a whole community, the dreaded burlesque community. When I read the article yesterday I just thought to myself “good job for taking a stand”, and I don’t mean a stand again burlesque (which I think is wonderful, as a whole), but a stand for the integrity of the reviewing profession, which is based on a (usually very subjective) combined emotional and intellectual response to a performance, articulated solely for the purpose of guiding the uninitiated through the chaos of the Fringe (because face it, you can’t see everything).
Sure enough, today in the Scotsman a second-page news feature (not even in the arts section) reported a planned protest by the burlesque community: “Burlesque dancers to hold demo at Scotsman office over harsh Fringe review”. The reason for the semi-naked protest (besides publicity)? The burlesque dancers are offended at Sally’s portrayal of their art form as demeaning to women. Her article begins “A woman with an expression somewhere between a crack addict and a blown-up sex doll takes off her bra and drops it on the floor.” And from there it gets harsher. But when I showed the article to a friend of mine who works at the Gilded Balloon, who is herself a burlesque performer, she read Sally’s description and said “Oh, well that just sounds like tacky burlesque”. Here’s why I find this situation so fascinating. Sally has obviously done her homework. She has read numerous books both for and against the new burlesque movement as a form of female empowerment (the article refers to a few of them). She went to see for herself, and she found the experience depressing rather than uplifting, and then she admirably did her job as a reviewer. I say, bad luck for the Edinburgh burlesque community, but it hardly settles the debate, and it’s hardly proof of bias, or grounds for a protest.
I can imagine a parallel universe in which there isn’t one evolutionary rap artist at the Fringe, but rather a half dozen or so, each spinning various aspects of hip-hop culture into humorous evolutionary parables. The Scotsman reviews us all as a package, and utterly savages our hip-hop skills and evolutionary knowledge, not to mention the overall poor entertainment value. It would be very easy to rally a protest claiming the review was ideological, that the reviewer was either a creationist or a racist (since the fear of a black planet seems to ironically extend into a fear of white rappers as well). Evolutionary rappers unite! But how would we be able to tell whether the reviewer had a grudge against rap, or evolution, or just against our particular take on these concepts? You can’t please everybody, but you can accuse everyone who dislikes you of being unfair and ideological. It’s a great self-esteem booster actually – you should try it.
And what do I think of the burlesque debate? I think the question of whether or not it’s empowering for women to get (mostly) naked in public is a debate best had by women. I’ve spent some time with the burlesque community in Vancouver and I genuinely think they’re doing it for the right reasons, for artistic self-expression and for the pure joy of it, the thrill, rather than for male visual gratification and easy money. Of course, the question of whether or not it would still be a thrill if there were no male visual gratification involved is one for evolutionary psychology to tackle. I released a whole song about this exact debate last year, weighing in from the (biased) perspective of a male voyeur (featuring Vancouver burlesque legend Miss Cherry OnTop). You can listen to the song here.
Oh yeah, and speaking of Scotsman features, here’s mine.